Portland Public Schools responds to COVID-19 spread with ‘targeted closings’

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Cases of COVID-19 among staff, more so than students, are now the greatest obstacle for Portland school administrators trying to maintain in-person classes.

Portland Public Schools recorded 900 COVID-19 cases – or 12 percent of the combined student and staff populations – in the two weeks after winter break. The first week showed an increase of almost 400 cases, while cases increased by only 10 percent the second week.

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But COVID-19 now accounts for 12 percent of staff absences, up from 8 percent before the break.

Superintendent Xavier Botana wrote in an email that the district is staying true to its belief that maintaining in-person learning is the priority, which is why officials are monitoring case rates and sticking to “targeted closings” of specific classrooms or schools rather than any district-wide closures.

The Maine Department of Education last week included 12 Portland schools in its list of 35 in the state in “outbreak” status, meaning they each have a 15 percent rate of absence among students and staff. That doesn’t mean those schools are required to close, but the School Department will continue to evaluate each school on a case-by-case basis.

Staffing issues due to the rising case rates were discussed at the School Board meeting on Jan. 18. Because of those issues, officials said PPS was forced to transition several classrooms with just over 100 students to remote learning for two consecutive weeks: a kindergarten and special education program at Talbot Community School, and pre-K students at Lyseth Elementary School and Children’s Odyssey.

Botana said administrators keep in regular contact with principals to ensure schools provide sufficient coverage. PPS has protocols for the transition to remote learning that require staff to have 10 days of online instruction prepared at any given time.

Botana said they monitor the incidence of cases within schools and among staff, but even though case counts are higher than ever, it’s still believed the increase is attributed to community transmission rather than spread within schools. 

He said the jumps in case rates reflect the trend in Cumberland County as a whole.

Nevertheless, eight out of 10 students are still attending school in person, according to the superintendent, who said the School Department believes universal closings shouldn’t be required unless absolutely necessary.

Pooled testing of elementary and middle school students has provided further reassurance that spread isn’t occurring within schools, Botana said.

While almost half of the city’s elementary and middle school homerooms have two or more positive cases, only about 25 percent of each pool are recurring positives, he said. There are 187 elementary school homerooms, and only 11 had cases trending up, along with only one of the 125 middle school homerooms.

It was decided six of those homerooms should switch to remote learning because they had more than five cases and showed a week-to-week increase: two at Talbot, one at Rowe, and three at Lyseth.

Pooled testing was extended to high schools for the first time this month, with student-athletes and participants in co-curricular activities participating.

Assistant Superintendent Aaron Townsend told the School Board that the first round of pooled testing was successful, and the School Department still hopes to expand it to the wider high school population. 

PPS is in the process of hiring additional nursing assistants to make pooled testing possible, although Townsend said there has been only one applicant for three open positions.

School Board Chair Emily Figdor praised the pooled testing process at Deering High School, where her daughter is participating in winter sports.

“The communication has been excellent,” Figdor said.

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